As a child, Don Shirley picked up the piano at the age of two, and by 19, he was performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He spoke eight languages and studied to be a psychologist, one time playing in a club to find a direct correlation between music and juvenile crime. Being a person of colour, he was discouraged from pursuing a career as a classic pianist and would later be hailed as a talented jazz musician, despite his efforts to distance himself from his fellow players. He lived in an apartment above Carnegie Hall for 50 years and decided to play in the Deep South in the hopes of changing people’s horrendous stereotypes about black people. Oh, and he may have been bisexual.
It is without doubt a fascinating life history. So much so, you can see why the Golden Globe winning movie Green Book tells his tale from the point of view of a rough-handed white bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), whose only real achievements appear to be being able to eat a lot of hot dogs in one sitting… 26, in fact. Flippancy aside, the reason for telling Shirley’s tale through a white man’s eyes is largely down to the screenplay being written by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga. Supposedly having been given Shirley’s blessing, Vallelonga tells the story of how his father was hired by Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, to drive him around the Deep South for two months for numerous contracted concerts.
Tony is a loving family man, who is also handy with his fists and is very racist. When two black repairmen drink from glasses given to him by his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), he throws them in them in the bin after the men leave. He takes on the job of driving Shirley as, by his own admission, he can tolerate anything for cash. Over the next two hours, the two men clash before eventually finding common ground and becoming lifelong friends. Taken at face value, this film – directed by Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) – is a charming tale of friendship overcoming prejudice that could tick the right boxes for undemanding audiences.
Look under the surface though and Green Book’s race relations begin to get a little murky. Shirley is played as a man who is neither comfortable in the black or white community. He struggles with loneliness, being applauded on stage one minute before being vilified by the very same audience once he’s back on the streets. Whilst Green Book touches upon this, particularly in the final act, it also has clanging scenes of Lip telling Shirley to loosen up and be more ‘black’. It’s as awkward as it sounds, with the bitter punchline being a scene where Shirley is served friend chicken by a wealthy businessman, who finds nothing offensive in his culinary stereotype.
For Shirley, who must grin and bear it, it’s another reminder that his ethnicity is seen first by others before his character. In Green Book, the scene is played out like a joke with Tony seemingly winning one over Shirley because… who knows? Equally, when Tony isn’t being the white saviour solving racism whilst the scales fall from his eyes, Shirley becomes the Magic Blackman sent to help Tony with his love life. It’s all a bit icky.
And it’s such a shame, because Ali’s performance is brilliant as he manages to say so much often without saying anything. He instils his character with so much dignity, whilst conversely Mortensen bounces around sounding like a Simpsons character. It’s a constant reminder that Green Book should have been about Shirley accepting who is and where he’s going, rather than a film about a dope teaching a jazz musician how to get his groove back.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Green Book’ opened in US cinemas on November 16, 2018 and arrives in Australian cinemas on January 24.